Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2532
Frances Hodgson Burnett is an author and playwright who has written more than forty novels and several plays. She is best known for her children’s stories, including The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, and Little Lord Fauntleroy. Burnett was born in Manchester, England, in 1849 but moved with her family to America when she was sixteen and has lived there ever since. Originally titled Mistress Mary, The Secret Garden was published serially starting in 1910; it was published as a completed novel in 1911.
Mary Lennox is a cross, ugly nine-year-old girl who is raised by a series of servants in India because her mother does not want to be bothered with her. As a consequence, Mistress Mary is a spoiled, lethargic, anemic girl who has never even dressed herself and imperiously gives orders to everyone around her; not surprisingly, no one likes her. She is so secluded (and ignored) that only a few people even know she exists; she is so selfish and self-absorbed that no one cares. When a cholera outbreak strikes her home, Mary’s parents die, and Mary is forgotten and abandoned. After she is finally discovered, an English clergyman’s family takes her in. They give her the nickname “Mistress Mary Quite Contrary.” She remains there until she is sent to her uncle’s home in England.
Mrs. Medlock, the housekeeper, meets Mary and accompanies her to Misselthwaite Manor, a six-hundred-year-old mansion with a hundred rooms. The isolated estate adjoins a moor, but it contains many gardens. Mary is not a pleasant girl. One of the house servants, Martha Sowerby, makes it clear that she will not be treated as Mary used to treat her servants back in India. In fact, Martha thinks it is almost comical that Mary is unable to dress herself—Martha’s four-year-old sister dresses herself every day. Mary is pale and weak and dependent, but Martha does not intend to feed those weaknesses; instead, she determines that Mary will become independent and strong under her care.
Martha mentions a secret garden that had been the private domain of Archibald Craven’s deceased wife, and Mary begins to search for it. The garden has been unused for ten years, but Mary is determined. One day she sees a robin in the gardens. She has never before seen a robin, but she feels an immediate kinship with this bird. When the cantankerous gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, sees that the robin appears to somehow approve of this contrary little girl, he calls the robin to him and begins to think more highly of Mary. When she asks about the hidden garden, Ben does not encourage her in her quest, though he grudgingly admits to its existence. He tells her that the former mistress of the manor, Mrs. Archibald Craven, loved roses and had a garden that she personally cultivated. In this floral sanctuary, she and her husband used to spend many private hours together, reading and talking. One day when Mrs. Craven sat in an old tree, the branch fell—and she died from the fall the next day. Before she died, she made Ben promise he would take care of her garden. According to her husband, however, the garden was to be untouched. The key was buried and the garden lost forever. None of the servants were to talk about it or their former mistress; Mr. Craven has never recovered from the loss.
Mary is thrilled at the prospect of finding the garden. She also realizes she is beginning to change for the better. Several times she hears a child crying in the night, but she is told it is the wind. Mary is not convinced. The next time she hears the sound, she begins wandering the corridors and opening doors. She finds nothing but a small family of mice.
Spring is coming, and Mary spends more time in the gardens, which improves her color, and gives her strength, and increases her appetite. One day the robin appears to direct her to a hole in the ground in which she finds a rusty key; she hopes it is the key to the garden. One day not long after, Martha gives Mary a skipping rope as a present intended to help her become more active and normal. As Mary is skipping rope, the ivy on the garden wall blows aside and she sees a door. The rusty key fits the lock and Mary enters the private garden.
Vines are looped above her as “fairy-like gray arches.” Rose bushes are everywhere, though they appear to be dead. As she looks more closely, Mary discovers tiny green shoots sprouting from the ground and is glad to see that something is alive in this garden. The green shoots seem crowded to her, so she begins to dig around them with a piece of wood, baring the rich soil and getting rid of the weeds. The robin watches and appears to be content; Mary thinks of this as her “secret garden.”
She hears the crying again, but there is a conspiracy of silence among the staff and Mary does not get answers to her questions about the sound. She does, however, get answers to her many questions about growing roses from Ben.
Martha agrees to have one of her brothers, twelve-year-old Dickon, get some garden tools and flower seeds for Mary, and Dickon delivers them the next day. Mary knows immediately that Dickon is attuned to the land, and animals even follow him wherever he goes. She decides to take him to the garden. The young boy teaches Mary about spring and growing and what happens underground before a plant finally surfaces, and he joins her in the garden nearly every day. Together they wake the garden. One day when Mary goes to the manor for her noon meal, she is unexpectedly summoned to see Archibald Craven, the uncle she has never met.
The man appears sad and lonely to Mary, but he tells her he has spoken with Martha’s mother (whom Martha has told about the weak and contrary little girl from India) and plans to take her advice about raising his niece. Mrs. Susan Sowerby has raised twelve children, so he trusts her when she tells him Mary must be allowed to roam free and grow stronger before being handed over to a governess. Mary is quick to realize her opportunity and asks for some land in which to garden; her uncle tells her she may have whatever she wants and can go anywhere on the property.
That night is stormy and Mary hears the crying again. This time she follows the horrible sound and discovers a young boy named Colin. He is Mr. Craven’s sickly son; Mr. Craven cannot bear to look at the boy, who reminds him of the beloved wife he lost. Colin is everything Mary used to be—spoiled and weak, imperious and sickly. The ten-year-old is convinced that he will be a hunchback like his father (who does have a minor slouch to his shoulders) and will probably not live much longer. Everyone around him fosters this belief; as a result, he is a helpless boy with a horrible attitude. Mary begins to talk to him about an imaginary secret place, a garden, which only they will know about. When she describes it, Colin is soothed and requests that she come back to visit him.
Mary tells Martha she has met Colin. Martha is dismayed until she sees that Mary is a good influence on the young boy. The local doctor is a distant cousin and will inherit the manor if Colin were to die, so he feeds the boy’s fears and pronounces doom and gloom when he visits. The housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock, agrees with Dr. Craven and expects nothing from Colin but sickness and trouble. A doctor from London has said there is nothing wrong with the boy that some healthy activity would not cure, but until Mary arrives Colin does not believe it.
The two cousins laugh and share delightful secrets, and the servants are amazed at the beginning of Colin’s transformation. Mary tells Colin all about Dickon and his menagerie and about how things grow in the magic of spring. They read books, which Colin has always done. The boy’s temperament is improving because he is “amused and interested.”
It has rained for a week; on the next sunny day, Mary meets Dickon in their secret garden instead of visiting Colin. She notices that the gray archway is turning into a “green gauze veil” and the robin is busily making a nest. She tells Dickon about Colin and they decide they must bring him to the garden.
When she finally goes to see her cousin, full of excitement and plans, Colin is in a foul mood because she did not come to see him as she has recently done. Colin displays a fit of his former temper, and Mary shows some of her former imperiousness and tells him he is selfish and self-absorbed. Colin’s nurse overhears the exchange and chuckles; she thinks Mary is exactly what the boy needs to get beyond his self-pity.
Mary goes to bed early after working hard in the garden all day but is awakened by the sound of an awful tantrum. When she goes to Colin’s room, she finds him “half insane with hysteria and self-indulgence.” He finally shares his fears that he will be deformed and will die young, and Mary is finally able to help him understand that neither of these fears is based on any kind of reality. He cannot walk on his own because he never gets out of bed, and what he needs is a reason to leave his bed. When he has calmed down enough to listen, she tells him that the garden she has been describing actually exists, and they make plans to go.
Colin gives the order that Martha’s brother Dickon is to be allowed to visit him, and Dickon arrives with his animal entourage—a crow, two squirrels, a baby lamb, and a fox. The three children talk about spring and growing things and gardening. When Colin finally sees the garden, he is transformed. Not only does he realize that he will live, but he is determined to get well and “live forever.” He asks the more knowledgeable Dickon about the dead tree in the middle of the garden, which appears to have a broken branch—but Colin moves to something new before Mary or Dickon are forced to explain about Colin’s mother.
The young master of the house is used to getting his way, primarily because the servants are deathly afraid of the boy’s physical condition as well as his bouts of temper. He orders them all to stay away from him when he is outside. The cousins determine that Colin should maintain the pretense of weakness until he is stronger. One day Colin sees Ben Weatherstaff standing on a ladder and looking into their secret garden; he orders the old gardener to enter their domain. Ben is furious at Mary for finding the garden, but she explains that the robin showed her the key and appears to be content that she and the boys are here. Ben hardly pays attention to her explanation, though, for he realizes Colin is actually standing on his own and is stunned at the sight. It was well known among the servants that the young boy is sickly and bedridden, so this is a shocking sight for the old man. Colin orders him to keep their secret, and he does.
Colin spends the day standing and digging. He plants a rose. He and Mary are so amazed at the concept of growing things that they call it “magic”—the very best kind of magic. Colin makes plans to get strong enough to walk and show his father, whenever he comes back to the manor, that he is strong and will live. Dickon confides in his mother, whom he knows will not reveal their secret. She loves what she realizes is happening to these two deprived children.
Mary has lost her “ugly little sour look,” and together she and Colin are growing stronger and “fatter” as they work and play in the fresh air of the moor. The pretense of small appetites and sickliness is getting more difficult to maintain. On rainy days they explore the house. The robins have had their babies and Colin is proud that he is becoming a “real boy.” Both Mary and Colin faithfully follow an exercise regimen Dickon learned from an athlete in the village. Colin is becoming healthy and well, and he proclaims he will “live forever and ever and ever.” The three of them are singing the “Doxology” as Susan Sowerby enters their secret garden one day. She calls the magic “the Big Good Thing” and says God is the “Joy Maker.”
Thoughts ultimately determine attitudes and actions, and Mary is so consumed with gardening and thoughts of magic that there is no longer room for the disagreeable thoughts that once made her sickly and tired. Colin once had nothing better to do and was a “hysterical, half-crazy little hypochondriac” who did not know about living things or about growing and standing on his own two feet. Now the good thoughts push out the bad, for “two things cannot be in one place.” He is now as strong and healthy as Dickon or any other boy on the moor.
Archibald Craven of Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire, England, has spent the ten years since his beloved wife died letting his “soul fill itself with blackness.” No ray of sunshine or brightness has been allowed to filter through the blackness. He travels to beautiful, remote places but none of the beauty reaches his soul. One day, though, he lies near a creek in Austria and sees the flowers in bloom for the first time in a decade. Something new is unleashed inside of him, and he feels as if he is coming alive. His body and soul grow stronger, and he dreams of Lilias, his wife. She is calling him and says she is in the garden. Just then he receives a letter from Dickon’s mother, who strongly suggests that he come home immediately.
When he arrives home, Archibald goes first to the door of the garden he and his wife loved so much. As he stands at the garden door, he hears the sound of children laughing—a distinctly unfamiliar sound to him. In an instant the door swings open and out runs a strong young boy right into his arms. It is Colin, who is exulting in having won a race with his friends. Father and son are both stunned, but each is thrilled at the changes in the other. Archibald asks for a tour of the garden, and Colin proudly shows him everything. Archibald is amazed, for he expected the garden to be a dead place; instead, it is a place of life and new growth and love once again. Father and son walk arm in arm back to the house.
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